'Kununurra Midnight Prowl' 2006, by The Jirrawun Girls, ochres and pigment with acrylic binder on Belgian linen 120 x 120 cm each panel (10 panels)

Jeremy Eccles | 17.02.11

Author: Jeremy Eccles

Tennielle Nocketta wasn't a bankable or even known name in the Aboriginal art business. But she was a vitally important project for the future of the artform – and collateral damage of the failure of the Jirrawun project in the East Kimberley.

Tennielle was in her early 20s when alcohol ended her life last weekend. But in her teens, as part of the Nocketta Sisters – Ramona, Remika, Vondean and Tennielle – she'd been turned from a wayward life on the streets of Kununurra to painting a grungy graffiti style of canvas by Tony Oliver – then Artistic Director of Jirrawun Arts. Jirrawun was famous through the naughties for evolving a management style for senior Gija artists like Paddy Bedford, Peggy Patrick and Freddy Timms which saw their art blossom, their careers soar and their prices lift. But the old people also wanted some continuity for their people. The Nockettas were their urban grandchildren.

Oliver first saw the girls' potential in a house they rented which had every flat surface, including ceilings and floors, covered in graffiti. That's pretty much what he then encouraged on to canvas in the Jirrawun studio – group works that grew and grew in confidence up to 12 metres in length.

Generously, the Sherman Galleries agreed to include these in a magnificent show in 2006 – Women's Business – placing them defiantly beside mature works by Goody Barrrett, Phyllis Thomas and Peggy Patrick. Tony Oliver's catalogue essay underlined that defiance:
“The younger women's works don't contain the 'traditional' content of the older women's paintings; yet nor are they pale imitations. Behind the tags and the language is the same strength and power. Their graffiti is tame in comparison to their lives; these women...are my heroes. The content of their paintings covers the walls of Kimberley communities. It is the only language that is screaming at the great Australian indifference (from) all sides of politics – black and white, left and right, dry and wet”.

And the largest of the sisterly works, Kununurra Midnight Prowl, sold for $22,000.

“The great Australian silence is as menacing and disturbing as that painting”, continued Oliver. “We do not want to see the realities that sit alongside the Dreaming, because it is too uncomfortable and its story too disturbing for our 'Lucky Country'.”

The 2006 show coincided with the Sydney Biennale. International arts judges were in town; and from all the art available, the Belgrade Arts Salon invited the Nockettas to travel with their work. But for these girls from the dark side of their tiny Kimberley town, “It was too massive an undertaking”, says Oliver today. “They had to want to take their chance; but they only knew what they knew” - and the art faded from their complex lives.

Jirrawun itself moved out of Kununurra as much as anything because of the town's malign influence on its artists. But even a new studio and grand plans near Wyndham doesn't seem to have saved this group – which I once optimistically described as, “The Rolls Royce of new systems for the management of Aboriginal art” - from a lingering fate almost as terminal as Tennielle Nocketta's.

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'DONT', 2006, by The Jirrawun Girls, ochres and pigment with acrylic binder on Belgian linen 120 x 120 cm


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